Today I got up early and went off to the San Francisco El Alto market with Carlos the English speaking guide. The San Francisco El Alto market is the biggest Sunday market in Guatemala, and is particularly known for its stock sales–it’s the biggest animal market in Central America.
(Hallelujah!! I have finally found the apostrophe key on the Spanish keyboard! I’ve been looking for it for a week now.)
The market is a tumble of stalls spreading out from the central square through much of the city–long before you reach the market itself, the streets are packed with individual stalls and vendors sitting with their wares spread out on a blanket around them. The market itself is held in the central square, with one big section for cattle sales, and a sea of tented canopies sheltering stalls selling anything from dried fish to luggage to fancy huipils (blouses). In the main square, there’s a giant mound of old clothes, which Carlos explained were secondhand clothes from the U.S., very cheap.
(Where do those secondhand clothes come from? The Salvation Army, mostly, and Goodwill etc. Most of the clothes donated to charities aren´t good enough to sell in American stores, so they cherry-pick the best and sell the rest for about 30 cents a pound to distributors, who ship them down to Central America, South America, or Africa. A little piece of America, right here in Guatemala.)
The market overall wasn’t very interesting (it’s really more for locals than foreigners), but it did have some nice handicrafts. And the animal sales–cows, pigs, chickens, turkeys all herded together in a giant gaggle. I asked how much a cow cost, and Carlos said 600 quetzales for a young one, up to 1000 for a full-grown beast. He and his wife had sold a heifer there just last week. (They have a cow, which produces one calf a year, and turkeys, which they breed and sell at the market.)
After the San Francisco market, we moved on to the glassworks at Cantel. Here they recycle old bottles into beautiful cups, lamps, ornaments, perfume flasks, etc. We walked through the shop at the front, and then were invited into the workshop in back. It was amazing–giant piles of broken glass, sorted roughly by color, and then, through a blast of heat, the glassworks.
Three giant kilns, made of old brick, lined the back half of the room, and a bustle of Mayan craftsmen hurried across the floor, wielding long steel poles tipped with blobs of fiery orange glass. First a tiny lump on the pipe, rolled expertly on a steel forming board, then the pole raised nearly vertical, like a bugler sounding a salute, and a very little breath creating a tiny balloon. Then another rolling, to create a small round cylinder, and back to the kiln. He blew out the glass more, ballooning outward, then quickly dipped it into a mold lined with wet newspaper to create a bottle or flask form. As soon as the glass thickened, the craftsman would yank out the bottle, throw it across an old steel drum, and shape the neck deftly with calipers or a flat metal beater. It was fascinating to watch–they worked so quickly, and so deftly, that I couldn’t get many photos. As soon as I picked up the camera, they were on to another step.
(It was nice being able to wander around on the work floor–in the U.S., of course, you’d never be able to get near the workers for insurance reasons, but here if you get injured, it’s your problem, so you can wander around as you please.)
After the Cantel glassworks, we went on to Zunil, where I had high hopes from the guidebook’s description of a textiles cooperative. The co-op itself was disappointing (low-quality goods, designed for tourist sales), but we went to see the shrine of San Simon, the “bad” saint.
San Simon is (per the guidebook) a mix of several Mayan deities blended with Catholicism, but my guide explained that San Simon had been a man who was very popular with the ladies, because he gave them medicines for all kinds of ailments. Then he did something bad–raped a young girl–and was killed for it. This distressed the women, because he had done so many good things for them, so they created a statue of him and began to bring him offerings.
Whichever story is true, San Simon is certainly an interesting figure–a drinking, smoking saint. One goes to the shrine and makes offerings of cigars, cigarettes, or rum, pouring it over the figure, or putting a lighted cigarette in his mouth; or the more abstemiously-minded can offer candles or flowers, though cigarettes and rum are supposed to be better. The shrine was dark, smoky, and hot (from all the candles), with San Simon himself seated in the shrine. One man came up, placed a cigarette between San Simon´s lips, held his hand, and murmured for a long time–a prayer, perhaps?–for a long time before departing.
I took one photo (they were 10 quetzales each, and I didn´t think I needed more than one) and we were off again.
Finally, we wound up in Xela (Quetzaltenango) again, where Carlos took me by the market so I could buy a traditional Xela huipil (which has quetzals brocaded into the weaving, and flowers down the front seams. Then we were off to another textiles shop, which Carlos said might be what I was looking for.
And there it was!! The Holy Grail. Tramas Textiles, just three blocks from my own hotel. I had lived right next to it for five days without ever knowing it was there. I walked in, and what should greet me but a backstrap loom? I almost did a little happy dance on the spot. The woman there demonstrated the loom for me, and I took lots of photos. Then I spotted a hanging on the wall that still had most of the loom pieces in it, and I asked if it was for sale. Yes, it was, and only 300 quetzales! I handed it over on the spot, and now I have most of a backstrap loom. I felt pretty good about buying it, too, because Tramas is a nonprofit co-op that helps widowed or abandoned women to earn a living, by teaching them to weave and then selling their products. (I’m headed back there tomorrow to see if I can buy a whole loom.)
After all that, I was pretty bushed, so I went home to the hotel.